Books

The Unreliable Narrator

Erika Krouse’s memoir Tell Me Everything challenges readers to dig deeper into who the person telling the story really is.

The outlines of two women seated on either side of a table having an intense conversation.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by spb2015/Getty Images Plus, Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and kostsov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Does anyone know how to read a memoir? To judge from the response to Heather Havrilesky’s Foreverland, it seems not. As Havrilesky sees it, she wrote a “funny, romantic” book about the paradoxes of marriage, for her, an institution both sustaining and maddening, one that she shares with her “best friend” whom she also sometimes sees as “a snoring heap of meat.” The result? Everyone’s yelling at her about being mean to her husband. Walter Kirn, in the New York Times Book Review, chided her for, as he sees it, filling the book with her husband’s “putative mental and emotional shortcomings,” while The View did a segment discussing whether Havrilesky was out of line even though none of the hosts had actually read the book.

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This is only the latest manifestation of a long-standing ambivalence about the memoir: Is it art or confession, and what does it owe to empirical fact? If Havrilesky had written a novel based on her mercurial feelings about marriage, not a hackle would have been raised, even if the narrator’s life appeared identical to her own. But call it nonfiction, and people object on behalf of her husband, although he presumably likes Havrilesky’s sense of humor just fine. As for the possibility that Havrilesky has created an authorial persona with an exaggerated voice for comic and literary purposes—well, that seems to have never occurred to some of her critics. Isn’t a memoir supposed to be the unvarnished, unstylized truth? These attitudes amount to an artistic straitjacket that has funneled literary autobiographers to autofiction and, in the aftermath of the James Frey scandal, perplexed publishers with readers’ demands that they fact-check the details of their authors’ personal lives.

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I thought of readers’ remedial understanding of how memoirs work when I read the author’s note at the end of Erika Krouse’s splendid Tell Me Everything, a familiar disclaimer explaining that in reconstructing a period of her past, Krouse has “rearranged the timeline to increase clarity and fit into the larger truth of the story” without altering “the veracity of the events themselves.” But Tell Me Everything is up to far more interesting tricks than fiddling with chronology. This is a startlingly fresh book that proves the memoir can do much, much more than just describe, or pretend to describe, what really happened.

In the early 2000s, Krouse, living in Colorado, met a man in a bookstore when they both reached for the same Paul Auster novel. He was an attorney—called Grayson in Tell Me Everything, a book where nearly every name has been changed—and after the pair got to talking, he offered her a job as a private investigator on a landmark sexual assault lawsuit.

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Krouse had published a short story in the New Yorker and a story collection with a big New York publisher. This looked like success, but she was still broke, working temp jobs to get by. Grayson made her this job offer, as Krouse tells it, because of her face. “It’s an ordinary-looking face,” she explains, “but if I ask ‘How are you?’ sometimes people start crying.” Strangers feel the urge to tell her their secrets. Indeed, before Grayson offers her the job, he confides that he’s thinking of leaving his law firm, something he hasn’t admitted to anybody else.

According to Krouse, she elicits these confessions—“I’m getting a divorce,” “I want to kill myself”—because of her lack of obvious personality. She portrays herself as comprehensively unremarkable and claims her voice “is the same pitch as ambient noise.” She’s both familiar and forgettable: One afternoon while Krouse was sitting on a park bench, three strangers in a row sat down next to her and insisted that they knew her. Meanwhile, an ex-boyfriend, introducing his new squeeze, couldn’t recall Krouse’s name. Another said, “What’s it like to date you, I wonder,” during a telephone conversation, despite the fact that the two had dated not long before that and according to Krouse “he had sorta-kinda proposed to me amid a wash of emotion he felt after a screening of Moulin Rouge.”

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Is Krouse exaggerating here? Probably, but the persona she’s crafting for herself—a nebbishy yet funny everywoman, a bit klutzy and specializing in self-deprecating wisecracks—is as familiar as her face. She’s Cathy from the comics, Liz Lemon, a character to be played by Beanie Feldstein: relatable, comfortable company who transforms her utter averageness into humor.

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A woman in a gray coat stands in front of a group of trees.
Erika Krouse. Courtesy of the author
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This wry persona is an odd choice, however, for the central story in Tell Me Everything: Grayson and Krouse work together for five years on a Title IX lawsuit against a university, Krouse’s alma mater. (Krouse doesn’t name it, but two minutes on Google will cough up the University of Colorado Boulder.) Multiple women had accused members of the football team and potential recruits of sexual assault. Krouse’s job was to find and interview potential witnesses for the suit.

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At first, Krouse thought she’d have to refuse the job. It stirred up too many dark memories. Between the ages of 4 and 7, she had been sexually, physically, and psychologically abused by a man she calls X. In her author’s note, she explains that she cannot name X because he is still alive. X’s exact relationship to Krouse isn’t specified, but he appears to have been a friend or partner of her mother. Her monstrously heartless mother alternated between denying that the abuse occurred and blaming Krouse for it—or, at least, for insisting on talking about it.

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Just how average can a girl be, I wondered reading Tell Me Everything, who grows up with the kind of mom who tells her, “Someday you’re going to need me. And I can’t wait for that day to happen, because I won’t be there for you.” This is one of several revelations that begin to poke holes in the character Krouse has established for herself. Another comes when Krouse remarks that she “studied martial arts for decades—karate, and also two kinds of kung fu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and ancient Okinawan weapons.” She is, in fact, an athlete herself, with a specialty in beating men twice her size through stubborn, brute endurance. When she marries JD, a cool acupuncturist from the karate scene, a guy at her gym expressed surprise, remarking, “I knew he lived with someone. But I never in a million years imagined it was you.” Krouse finds this mystifying, too, but JD, who seems eminently grounded and caring, knows right away that he’s seriously interested in her. Can she really be such a dorky nonentity?

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But nothing undermines Krouse’s self-description more than the scenes in which she interviews victims, witnesses, and perpetrators in the campus rape case. These read like a master class in drawing people out, no easy task in a football-worshipping town where the accusers paid a heavy social price for troubling the home team. The first victim Krouse speaks with is a knockout, a stroke of luck as Krouse sees it: “Beautiful women love being friends with me because my plainness makes their beauty stand out more, like backlighting.” Soon it becomes clear, however, that this isn’t what makes the woman open up. Krouse keeps her hands on the tabletop, with palms upward. She matches her subject’s breathing and posture. She takes just enough notes to make the woman feel important, but not enough to break eye contact for long. “When she was vague I acted bored, only resuming eye contact when she disclosed something interesting. When she leaned back in skepticism, I stuttered so she’d feel sorry for me, and she leaned forward again. I gazed at her like she was the older, wiser one, like each fact she uttered was the most important thing I had ever heard.” You can, Krouse observes, “find out anything if you listen that way.”

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Krouse soon susses out that some people want to disagree with whatever an interviewer says, so if you need them to confirm a fact, you should suggest that you believe the opposite. From tiny movements in a source’s face, she picks up crucial clues to their unspoken desires and fears. In one of her most astonishing feats, Krouse interviewed a sex worker who operated an escort agency patronized by the team’s recruiters. The woman regaled Krouse with the story of an unnamed client unrelated to the case, a notable local CEO who turned out to have necrophiliac tendencies. While the woman spoke, Krouse observed “a stranger’s cheek, lip, and jaw layered over her face like a scrim. For a second, she wore the guy’s face as clearly as if she were doing an impression; most people do this when they talk about someone else.” (They do?!) To the amazement of her source, Krouse was able to identify the man. In other words, it isn’t the bland personability of Krouse’s own face that encourages people to confide in her. She has skills.

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A sizable chunk of Tell Me Everything is the stirring tale of how Krouse helped Grayson obtain a small measure of justice for the victims in Boulder, a story of setbacks and success snatched from the jaws of defeat that would make a good movie. But figuring out Krouse is the most fascinating puzzle in the book. She is an unreliable narrator, but not about the facts—about herself. At the beginning of Tell Me Everything, the reader has to peer beneath Krouse’s self-portrait of a hapless nonentity to see the tough, canny survivor she actually is. How does a person end up so blind to her own nature? And how did she become such a savant at reading people in the first place? As she works on this enraging case, with victims whose experiences often mirror her own, Krouse inches her way toward a better understanding of who she is. Tell Me Everything isn’t a testimony of suffering. It’s the evidence of what Krouse has made from it: an artist, and a formidable one.